REL 397-01: Believers, Skeptics, and Seekers

Professor John Schmalzbauer

Office: Strong Hall 263

Missouri State University


Phone: 836-5918 


Course Description

In an age of political and religious polarization, Americans are reexamining their relationship with the sacred. From megachurches and mosques to CrossFit and Oprah, they find meaning through many different paths. Losing their religion, some identify as secular. Others describe themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious. Though millions still believe, American religion is changing as we become a multi-faith society. This course explores the emergence of religious, secular, and spiritual identities, examining how they compete, conflict, and find common ground. Students will come away with a deeper understanding of American diversity and contemporary religious trends.


Course Goals

1.       Expose students to the multiplicity of religious, secular, and spiritual identities in America

2.       Understand the complex history of religious, secular, and spiritual identities

3.       Explore the sources of conflict among religious, secular, and spiritual Americans 

4.       Examine the possibilities for consensus among religious, secular, and spiritual Americans

5.       Apply the scholarship on religious, secular, and spiritual identities to Missouri and the Ozarks


Required Textbook and Electronic Reserve Readings

1.       Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America (Simon & Schuster, 2017). Get paperback edition.

2.       Eboo Patel, Out of Many Faiths (Princeton University Press, 2018).

3.       Chris Stedman, Faitheist (Beacon Press, 2012).

4.       Phil Zuckerman, Society without God (New York University Press, 2008).

5.       Leigh Schmidt, Restless Souls (University of California Press, 2012). Be sure to get this edition.

6.       Elizabeth Drescher, Choosing Our Religion (Oxford University Press, 2016).


Grading and Assignments

Attendance Policy:  Attendance is required at all class meetings (except in cases of illness, family situations, religious holidays, MSU activities, and other approved events).  Participation grades will be penalized for excessive unexcused absences. 


Class Participation (25 points): Students will be evaluated on their participation in class discussions, familiarity with the readings, and the quality of their comments. 


Reflection Paragraphs (75 points): Several times in the semester, students will be asked to write one or more paragraphs reflecting on the readings.  This is an opportunity for the instructor to see how students are processing the readings.  It is also an opportunity for students to express their opinions.  They will be graded on the extent to which they show familiarity with the readings and for their thoughtfulness. Look for the letter P next to the readings on days when paragraphs are due.


Religious/Secular/Spiritual Space Paper: (300 points): Students will complete a 7-9 page paper based on a field visits to a religious, secular, or spiritual place in Missouri or the surrounding states. Papers should provide a detailed description of the place, as well as relate it to the larger themes of this course. Possible field sites include congregations, bookstores, fitness centers, coffee shops, bars, tattoo parlors, art galleries/museums, and science museums. Field sites may be contemporary or historical (in the case of the latter, some library research will be necessary). Papers should relate observations to readings on place in Unit IV. See separate handout. Papers due Wednesday May 8th in class.


Examinations (600 points total; 300 points each): There will be two examinations in this course.  The final will not be cumulative.  Examinations will be a mixture of short answer and essay questions.


The following grading scale will be used:

4.0 A: Outstanding Work (93-100)

3.7 A- : Excellent Work (90-92)

3.3 B+: Near Excellent Work (87-89)

3.0 B: Very Good Work (83-86)

2.7 B-: Good Work (80-82)

2.3 C+: Slightly Above Satisfactory Work (77-79)

2.0 C: Satisfactory Work (73-76)

1.7 C-: Slightly Below Satisfactory Work (70-72)

1.3 D+: Passing Work (67-69)

1.0 D: Minimum Passing Work (63-66)

0.0 F: Failed—No Credit (0-62); I: Incompelte

If a student is on the border of a grade, the instructor will take into consideration the overall performance of the student, class participation, and amount of improvement.


Academic Dishonesty: Missouri State University is a community of scholars committed to developing educated persons who accept the responsibility to practice personal and academic integrity. Students are responsible for knowing and following the university’s student honor code, Student Academic Integrity Policies and Procedures and also available at the Reserves Desk in Meyer Library. Any student participating in any form of academic dishonesty will be subject to sanctions as described in this policy. See  for more information. 


Nondiscrimination Statement: Missouri State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution, and maintains a grievance procedure available to any person who believes he or she has been discriminated against. At all times, it is your right to address inquiries or concerns about possible discrimination to the Office for Institutional Equity and Compliance, Park Central Office Building, 117 Park Central Square, Suite 111, 417-836-4252. Other types of concerns (i.e., concerns of an academic nature) should be discussed directly with your instructor and can also be brought to the attention of your

instructor’s Department Head. Please visit the OED website at  


Disability Accommodation: If you are a student with a disability and anticipate barriers related to this course, it is important to request accommodations and establish an accommodation plan with the University. Please contact the Disability Resource Center (DRC) (, Meyer Library, Suite 111, 417-836-4192, to initiate the process to establish your accommodation plan. The DRC will work with you to establish your accommodation plan, or it may refer you to other appropriate resources based on the nature of your disability. In order to prepare an accommodation plan, the University usually requires that students provide documentation relating to their disability.  Please be prepared to provide such documentation if requested. Once a University accommodation plan is established, you may notify the class instructor of approved accommodations.  If you wish to utilize your accommodation plan, it is suggested that you do so in a timely manner, preferably within the first two weeks of class. Early notification to the instructor allows for full benefit of the accommodations identified in the plan. Instructors will not receive the accommodation plan until you provide that plan, and are not required to apply accommodations retroactively.


Cell Phone Policy: As a member of the learning community, each student has a responsibility to other students who are members of the community. When cell phones or pagers ring and students respond in class or leave class to respond, it disrupts the class. Therefore, the Office of the Provost prohibits the use by students of cell phones, pagers, PDAs, or similar communication devices during scheduled classes. All such devices must be turned off or put in a silent (vibrate) mode and ordinarily should not be taken out during class. Given the fact that these same communication devices are an integral part of the University’s emergency notification system, an exception to this policy would occur when numerous devices activate simultaneously. When this occurs, students may consult their devices to determine if a university emergency exists. If that is not the case, the devices should be immediately returned to silent mode and put away. Other exceptions to this policy may be granted at the discretion of the instructor.  


Dropping a Class: It is your responsibility to understand the University’s procedure for dropping a class. If you stop attending this class but do not follow proper procedure for dropping the class, you will receive a failing grade and will also be financially obligated to pay for the class. For information about dropping a class or withdrawing from the university, contact the Office of the Registrar at 836-5520. See Academic Calendars ( for deadlines.  


Emergency Response Statement: At the first class meeting, students should become familiar with a basic emergency response plan through a dialogue with the instructor that includes a review and awareness of exits specific to the classroom and the location of evacuation centers for the building. All instructors are provided this information specific to their classroom and/or lab assignments in an e-mail prior to the beginning of the fall semester from the Office of the Provost and Safety and Transportation. Students with disabilities impacting mobility should discuss the approved accommodations for emergency situations and additional options when applicable with the instructor. For more information go to and  


Religious Accommodation: The University may provide a reasonable accommodation based on a person’s sincerely held religious belief. In making this determination, the University reviews a variety of factors, including whether the accommodation would create an undue hardship. The accommodation request imposes responsibilities and obligations on both the individual requesting the accommodation and the University. Students who expect to miss classes, examinations, or other assignments as a consequence of their sincerely held religious belief shall be provided with a reasonable alternative opportunity to complete such academic responsibilities. It is the obligation of students to provide faculty with reasonable notice of the dates of religious observances on which they will be absent by submitting a Request for Religious Accommodation Form to the instructor by the end of the third week of a full semester course or the end of the second week of a half semester course. For more information and a copy of the form, see


Religion at a State University: Consistent with Supreme Court decisions regarding the teaching of religion at public institutions (Abington v. Schempp 1963), this course approaches the study of religion from a non-confessional standpoint.  We will focus on describing and analyzing the place of religion in American culture, rather than arguing for one religious tradition or another.  Students are free to express or not to express their own beliefs in class.  They will be evaluated strictly on the basis of their work.


Office Hours for Professor Schmalzbauer: Mondays and Fridays 3-4:30 p.m.; and Thursdays 11:00 a.m.-1 p.m. in Strong Hall 263 (Religious Studies Department).



Monday January 14: Introducing the Course


Wednesday January 16: Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Identities

Reading: Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, “Religious, Spiritual and Secular.”  P



Unit I: Believers

Friday January 18: Changes in American Christianity, Part I

Reading: Robert P. Jones, Obituary and Chapter 1, The End of White Christian America, 1-44.


Monday January 21: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day


Wednesday January 23: Changes in American Christianity, Part II

Reading: Robert P. Jones, Chapters 2 and 3, The End of White Christian America, 45-110. P


Friday January 25: Changes in American Christianity, Part III

Reading: Robert P. Jones, Chapter 4, The End of White Christian America, 111-146.


Monday January 28: Changes in American Christianity, Part IV

Reading: Robert P. Jones, Chapter 5, The End of White Christian America, 147-195.


Wednesday January 30: American Christianity, Part V

Reading: Robert P. Jones, Chapter 6, The End of White Christian America, 197-239.


Friday February 1: American Christianity After 2016

Reading: Robert P. Jones, Afterword, The End of White Christian America. P


Reading: Sarah Jones, “What’s Next for Evangelicalism?”  P


Reading: Russell Moore, “Fragmentation of the Soul.”  P


Monday February 4: Religious Diversity in America, Part I

Reading: Eboo Patel, Acknowledgments, Introduction, and Chapter 1, Out of Many Faiths, ix-32.


Wednesday February 6: Religious Diversity, Part II

Reading: Eboo Patel, Chapters 2 and 3, Out of Many Faiths, 33-65. P


Friday February 8: Religious Diversity, Part III

Reading: Eboo Patel, Chapters 4, 5, and 6, Out of Many Faiths, 66-106.


Monday February 11: Religious Diversity, Part IV

Reading: Eboo Patel, Postscript, Out of Many Faiths, 107-109.


Reading: Robert P. Jones in Out of Many Faiths, 113-132.


Wednesday February 13: Religious Diversity Part V

Reading: John Inazu in Out of Many Faiths, 133-150. P


Friday February 15: Religious Diversity, Part VI

Reading: Laurie Patton in Out of Many Faiths, 151-179.



Unit II: Skeptics

Wednesday February 20: History of American Skepticism

Reading: Susan Jacoby, “A New Birth of Reason.”


Reading: “Susan Jacoby on Secularism and Freethinking.”


Friday February 22: An American Atheist, Part I

Reading: Chris Stedman, Foreword and Chapters 1-2, Faitheist, xi-34. P


Monday February 25: An American Atheist, Part II

Reading: Chris Stedman, Chapters 3 and 4, Faitheist, 35-81.


Wednesday February 27: An American Atheist, Part III

Reading: Chris Stedman, Chapters 5 and 6, Faitheist, 82-135.


Friday March 1: An American Atheist, Part IV

Reading: Chris Stedman, Chapters 7, 8, and Afterword, Faitheist, 136-182. P


Monday March 4: The Humanist Chaplaincy Debate

Reading: David Zax, “True Nonbeliever.”


Reading: Tony Perkins, “Navy Floats Ideas of Atheist Chaplains.”


Reading: Chris Stedman, “Tony Perkins: Atheists Can’t Be Chaplains.”


Wednesday March 6: European Secularism, Part I

Reading: Phil Zuckerman, Introduction and Chapter 1, Society without God, 1-35. P


Friday March 8: European Secularism, Part II

Reading: Phil Zuckerman, Chapters 2 and 3, Society without God, 36-75


March 9, 2019 - March 17, 2019: Spring Break


Monday March 18: European Secularism, Part III

Reading: Phil Zuckerman, Chapters 4-6, Society without God, 95-127. P


Wednesday March 20: European Secularism, Part IV

Reading: Phil Zuckerman, Chapters 7 and 8, Society without God, 128-166.


Friday March 22: Comparing Europe and America

Reading: Phil Zuckerman, Chapter 9, Society without God, 167-183. P


Reading: Sigal Samuel, “Atheists are Sometimes More Religious Than Christians.” P


Monday March 25: Examination #1



Unit III: Seekers

Wednesday March 27: American Spirituality, Part I

Reading: Leigh Schmidt, Preface and Introduction, Restless Souls, xi-23.


Friday March 29: American Spirituality, Part II

Reading: Leigh Schmidt, Chapter 1, Restless Souls, 25-62.


Monday April 1: American Spirituality, Part III

Reading: Leigh Schmidt, Chapter 2, Restless Souls, 63-100. P


Wednesday April 3: American Spirituality, Part IV

Reading: Leigh Schmidt, Chapter 4, Restless Souls, 143-179.


Friday April 5: American Spirituality, Part V

Reading: Leigh Schmidt, Chapter 6, Restless Souls, 227-268. P


Monday April 8: Howard Thurman, Part I

Film: Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story


Wednesday April 10: Howard Thurman, Part II

Reading: Paul Harvey, “Howard Thurman and the Arc of History in San Francisco.”


Friday April 12: Spirituality of the Nones, Part I

Reading: Elizabeth Drescher, Introduction and Chapter 1, Choosing Our Religion, 1-52. P


Monday April 15: Spirituality of the Nones, Part II

Reading: Elizabeth Drescher, Chapter 2, Choosing Our Religion, 53-88.


Wednesday April 17: Spirituality of the Nones, Part III

Reading: Elizabeth Drescher, Chapter 3, Choosing Our Religion, 89-115.


April 18, 2019 - April 21, 2019: Spring Holiday


Monday April 22: Spirituality of the Nones, Part IV

Reading: Elizabeth Drescher, Chapter 4, Choosing Our Religion, 116-156.


Wednesday April 24: Spirituality of the Nones, Part V

Reading: Elizabeth Drescher, Chapter 5 and Conclusion, Choosing Our Religion, 157-181; 246-252



Unit IV: Religious, Secular, and Spiritual Places

Friday April 26: Case Study—The Town of Liberal, Missouri

Reading: Thomas Gounley, “Looking Back on Liberal, the Midwest's Failed Atheist Utopia.”


Reading: O.E. Harmon, “The Story of Liberal, Missouri—Why the Town of Liberal was Founded.”


Reading: Dr. J.B. Bouton, “Two Years Among the Spirits in Liberal, Missouri.” 


Monday April 29: Case Study—The Missouri Platonist and Osceola’s Johnson Library

Reading: Steve Pokin, “Living with his 35,000 Books.”


Reading: Ronnie Pontiac, “Thomas Johnson: Platonism Meets Magic Sex on the Prairie.”


Wednesday May 1: Case Study—Christian Coffeehouses in Springfield

Reading: Adam Park, “Cream, Sugar, and Christianity,” 12-25.  


Friday May 3: Case Study—CrossFit, Dinner Parties, Pop-Up Shabbat, and Other Gathering Places

Reading: Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, How We Gather.


Reading: Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, Something More.


Monday May 6: Case Study—The American Megachurch

Reading: Scott Thumma and Warren Bird, Recent Shifts in America’s Largest Protestant Churches: Megachurches 2015 Report.


Reading: Ryan Sanders, “The Megachurch Model is Unsustainable.”


Wednesday May 8: Reports from the Field

Students will share from their observations of local religious, secular, and spiritual places